Friday, December 31, 2010

So Fresh, So Clean

Here's a New Year's grooming tip from your friends at Debris Slide: In her autobiography, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, Pam Grier - star of such cinematic landmarks as Black Mama, White Mama and Scream Blacula Scream - writes about how she used to date Kareem Abdul-Jabbar back in the early Seventies. As a very busy professional athlete, Kareem used to take five showers a day, according to Sheba Baby. Pam says that she loved the fact that Kareem smelled and felt so clean, despite the fact that it was his professional obligation to get sweaty.

You're probably taking one shower a day, maybe two, and you're thinking, "Hey, I'm whisper clean! What good would five showers a day do me?" But then again, you haven't bagged the likes of Pam Grier, have you?

Happy New Year!

This one's for all the Swedes in the extended Debris Slide family. Represent, Goteborg!

I always think they're going to sing: "Happy New Year/Happy New Year/May we all/Have a... beer!" Because that would rhyme, right?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sometimes, the Apple Falls Several Miles From the Tree

Keith Richards' father - the same man whose ashes his son purportedly snorted - was an Eagle Scout.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, Baby

One of the plot points of the horribly contrived and overrated film Love, Actually, which takes place around Christmas, is that British people are pointlessly fascinated by which song is at Number One on the pop charts at Christmas. Here in the United States, no one much cares, because we're not listening to a whole lot of pop music this time of year, and even if we are, it tends to be holiday-themed music anyway. It would make more sense to be concerned about which song was Number One on the Fourth of July, because everyone's listening to Top Forty radio as they drive to the beach.

So the list of songs that took the Number One spots on the American charts is pretty paltry. In the interest of brevity (and because no one really cares about this), I'm going to list only the songs from what Casey Kasem used to call the Rock Era (which for my purposes is 1955-2000) that were at Number One on charts that came out on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and for the record, the official chart date falls on a Saturday.

1955: "Autumn Leaves," by Roger Williams
1960: "Are You Lonesome To-night?, [sic]" by Elvis Presley
1965: "Over and Over," by the Dave Clark Five
1966: "Good Vibrations," the Beach Boys
1971: "Brand New Key," by Melanie
1976: "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)," by Rod Stewart
1977: "How Deep Is Your Love," by the Bee Gees
1988: "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," by Poison
1993: "Hero," by Mariah Carey
1994: "Here Comes the Hotstepper," by Ini Kamoze
1999: "Smooth," by Santana featuring Rob Thomas

Not much of a list, is it? The one good thing about "Here Comes the Hotstepper" is that my son Mark used to sing the line following the title as something about a "leprechaun gangster." It's nice to see the Beach Boys getting some Christmas love, but I prefer to imagine a family driving off to Midnight Mass in 1971, and being infused with the spirit of Melanie, allowing that she'd done all right for a girl.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Merry Christmas, 500 Years From Now

Jack's entry in a contest to show people celebrating Christmas in the future:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I Saw a White Ladder All Covered With Water

Presented for no other reason than I was interested in compiling the list, here is the complete rundown (I think) of all the covers of Bob Dylan songs that have made it to the Top Forty:

"Blowin' in the Wind," by Peter Paul and Mary: Entered the chart in July 1963, peaked at Number Two

"Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right," by Peter Paul and Mary: September 1963, Number Nine

"Mr. Tambourine Man," by the Byrds: June 1965, Number One (This would be the only Number One record written by Bob Dylan, although Dylan did sing on the Number One "We Are the World," from 1985.)

"All I Really Want to Do," by Cher: August 1965, Number 15

"It Ain't Me Babe," by the Turtles: August 1965, Number Eight

"All I Really Want to Do," by the Byrds: August 1965, Number 40 (These last two songs entered the Top Forty the same week, giving Dylan a total of three covers on the charts at one time, two of them "All I Really Want to Do." 'Highway 61 Revisited' came out at the end of that month.)

"Blowin' in the Wind," by Stevie Wonder: July 1966, Number Nine (It entered the charts the day after Dylan's motorcycle accident in Woodstock.)

"My Back Pages," by the Byrds: April 1967, Number 30

"Too Much of Nothing," by Peter, Paul and Mary: December 1967, Number 35

"The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)," by Manfred Mann: March 1968, Number 10

"All Along the Watchtower," by Jimi Hendrix: September 1968, Number 20

"She Belongs to Me," by Rick Nelson: January 1970, Number 33

"If Not for You," by Olivia Newton-John: July 1971, Number 25

Note: Guns n' Roses' cover of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," from 1991, went to Number Two in the U.K., and Number Two on the American Mainstream Rock charts, but didn't even reach the Hot 100.

Monday, December 13, 2010

An the Man

The chorus to Van Morrison's 1972 hit "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)" is actually sung thusly:

I'm in henny one
I'm in helly one
I'm in henny one
When you smile

I don't believe Van pronounces the letter V at any point in this song.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Last Dance

Yesterday, I mentioned that John Lennon's appearance with Elton John in 1974 was his last performance on the concert stage, but it wasn't Lennon's last public performance. That came the following April, when he did a couple of songs for a British TV tribute to Sir Lew Grade. He rips up a version of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin," which had also appeared on Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll album, and sings "Imagine" while playing guitar rather than piano, which I found odd. The lyrics have been updated to: "Imagine no possessions/I wonder if we can," as opposed to the more strident "if you can." Lennon also chews gum throughout.

Here's the first number he did, "Slippin' and Slidin'." "Imagine" has had embedding disabled, but you can see him do it here. Or you can watch the whole performance, uninterrupted, here.

All of this brings up the question: Lew Grade? Lennon parceled out his solo performances pretty carefully, so why would he choose to do this one, in front of a decidedly upper-crusty, "rattle your jewelry" type crowd?

Grade was a TV mogul in Great Britain, the producer of such series as The Saint, The Prisoner and Thunderbirds. His primary relationship with John Lennon seemed to be as a business adversary: Grade bought a huge chunk of Northern Songs, Lennon and McCartney's publishing vehicle, from its owner Dick James in 1969. This gave Grade roughly a third of the company, and the Beatles roughly a third; after a semi-public battle, Grade managed to acquire enough from other shareholders to give him more than half of the company, and control of Northern Songs.

The result was that the Beatles at that point owned 31 percent of their own songs. Knowing they had lost authority over the catalogue, and that they were about to break up anyway, Lennon and McCartney agreed to sell their shares of Northern Songs to Grade's company, ATV. Some sources report that they received a million and a half pounds apiece, although they may have also gotten some shares of ATV as well.

At any case, by 1975, Lennon apparently saw Grade as more of a colleague than a rival - although neither of the songs he did at Grade's tribute was controlled by Northern. I doubt that was coincidental.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

All Those Years Ago

At this time tomorrow, John Lennon will have been dead for thirty years. Howard Cosell famously announced his death on Monday Night Football (not to me, though - I heard about it while listening to WRNO, We're da Rock a New Orleans), but it wasn't Cosell's first bit of business with Lennon. Six years earlier, almost to the day, in Los Angeles, Lennon had stopped by the booth a la Oscar and Felix, and submitted to some surprisingly good questioning from Cosell, although he refers to John's old band as "the original Beatles," as if other bands had begun using that name. For the record, the game was between the Redskins and the Rams. The Redskins won, 23-17.

This would have been at the tail end of Lennon's Lost Weekend. A week and a half earlier, he had appeared onstage with Elton John at Madison Square Garden in New York City, where Lennon had been reunited with Yoko Ono. (That would, of course, be his last-ever concert appearance.) No wonder he was in a good mood; he was even feeling charitable toward the Beatles, and toward "Yesterday" in particular, which didn't happen all that often.

Hard to believe he's been gone all these years, isn't it? For anyone who grew up listening to him, he was a unique and unmistakable voice, equal parts challenging and reassuring. We'll never see his likes again, and we'll never forget him. We'll never forget Lennon, either.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Simple Twist of Fate

What I would like long distance information to give me is the name of the song: According to the Chess box set I have, it's called "Memphis, Tennessee," but some Chuck Berry sets give the title as "Memphis." Johnny Rivers' 1964 version was called "Memphis," although Billboard notes that it was "first recorded by Chuck Berry in 1959 as 'Memphis, Tennessee.'" When Elvis Presley recorded it, he called it "Memphis, Tennessee." I have three different versions of this song on my iTunes, and iTunes styles it differently for each one: Chuck Berry's is given as "Memphis Tennessee [no comma]," Johnny Rivers' as "Memphis," and the Beatles' (from The Beatles at the BBC) as "Memphis, Tennessee."

Of course, no one would care if it weren't such a great song. What really cinches it is the twist ending: The lyrics are strong and detailed all the way through, but the last two lines completely recast their meaning. They make you want to go back and listen to the song over again, and isn't that really the aim of every pop song?

It got me thinking about other songs that have a twist ending, of which there aren't that many. There are plenty of songs where the twist comes in at the chorus, like the Temptations' "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)." But how many drop the hammer at the end? Jim Stafford's "My Girl Bill" does that, as well as, arguably, "We Gotta Got You a Woman" by Todd Rundgren's Runt. More than that I cannot add.

But I'm sure I'm missing some. Any others?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

All Out of Sync

The clip of B.J. Thomas performing on The Ed Sullivan Show that I posted here the other day was obviously a lip-sync job. I don't think anyone watching that show over the age of ten was supposed to think B.J. was actually singing. I get the sense that such performances were prevalent during the heyday of the variety show, and of course the technique was revived in the glory days of MTV.

The alternative to lip-synced TV performances would seem to be a full live run-through of the song, a la The Midnight Special or Saturday Night Live if you're not Ashlee Simpson. But there's a choice between these two that seems to have fallen by the wayside, wherein a band sings live vocals to the original backing tracks. The Beatles may have invented this (although all that means is that the earliest example I can find is of the Beatles): For the famous televised performance of "All You Need Is Love," in 1967, the boys performed to a prerecorded backing rhythm track, with drums, piano and background vocals. (Unhappy with his vocals, John Lennon overdubbed the verses for the single release.) I'm sure there was probably a heyday for this sort of thing, maybe on Soul Train? I don't really know.

But it's the best choice, isn't it? Most groups just try to re-create their music onstage with as much fidelity as possible anyway, with the exception maybe of the guitar solo. The vocals are the only thing that generally benefits from being done in the moment.

Check out this video of Badfinger, doing the great "No Matter What" with live vocals over the recorded backing track. It really works well. Besides, it's always a good day for some Badfinger:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Keeping Up with the Joneses

The Monkees' Davy Jones is probably the most famous person in the world who goes by that name, but he's not the most famous person in the world who was born with the name David Jones. My guess is that honor would go either to David Bowie or to the onetime Los Angeles Rams defensive end and Multiblade pitchman Deacon Jones.

Monday, November 15, 2010

(Hey Won't You Play) Another B.J. Thomas Song

This Thursday, November 18, the country-pop singer B.J. Thomas will make an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Heaven only knows why. Not that there's anything wrong with B.J. Thomas, who has become a popular favorite around here, but it seems like kind of a funny choice to me.

Billy Joe Thomas was born in Hugo, Oklahoma, but his family moved to Houston when he was very young (which didn't prevent the 1982 New Rolling Stone Record Guide from calling him "Oklahoma-based"). He decided he wanted to be a musician after seeing Hank Williams in concert: "I remember him getting on his knees and playing that guitar," Thomas said later. "And I'll never forget the look on my daddy's face at that show. I guess that's the night I decided I was going to communicate with my daddy through the music he loved."

Thomas befriended another Texas singer named Roy Head, whose band the Traits served as a rival for Thomas' Triumphs. Roy Head hit nationally first, with "Treat Her Right," which went to Number Two in the fall of 1965. B.J. and the Triumphs also got a deal and recorded their own album, on the little Texas label Pacemaker, run by Huey P. Meaux, the Crazy Cajun. Most of the album was straight rock & roll, but B.J.'s father had told him, "Don't come back till you record something country," so the last song they lay down was Hank's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." It became the title track of the album and a regional hit, going to Number One on whatever charts Houston had at the time.

One of Thomas' high school friends, a dude named Steve Tyrell, had become the head A&R man for Scepter Records, which had signed Roy Head in 1964. (Tyrell was still in his teens at the time; Scepter was rather bootstrappy.) Scepter re-released "I'm So Lonesome" nationally and turned it into a smash. B.J.'s version was the biggest hit anyone ever had of that song, going to Number Eight in the spring of 1966 (although Terry Bradshaw [!] took it to Number 17 on the country charts in 1977).

With that hit under his belt, Thomas was asked to go out and perform on a Dick Clark package tour, not unlike the Motown tours that were going around at that time. Other acts on the tour included Len "1-2-3" Barry, Chad and Jeremy, and the inimitable Norma Tanega, riding semi-high on the semi-success of "Walkin' a Cat Named Dog." To hear Thomas tell the story now, the Triumphs were asked to go along on the tour, and be the backing band not only for B.J. but for the other solo singers as well. B.J. now claims that they didn't want to play for any other vocalists, but he also admits they were going to college and had day jobs and such, and didn't want to ride a bus around the country with the terminally twee Chad and Jeremy.

Anyway, B.J. Thomas was now a solo act. Thomas knocked around in the nether regions of the Top Forty for a couple of years. One of these was "The Eyes of a New York Woman," by another old Houston friend named Mark James, who was working as a staff songwriter for the Memphis producer Chips Moman. "New York Woman," featuring the electric sitar Moman had come to love so well, was the first single from Thomas' 1968 album On My Way, and it went to Number 28. But the big mover was the album's second single, another James song, "Hooked on a Feeling." The two songs had the same electric sitar (playing seemingly the same parts), and even similar lyrics ("Lips as sweet as honey" in "New York Woman" becomes "Lips as sweet as candy" in "Hooked"); the less energetic "New York Woman" seemed like a dry run for "Hooked on a Feeling." It went all the way to Number Five early in 1969.

Thomas' labelmate Dionne Warwick recommended Thomas to her house songwriters, Hal David and Burt Bacharach, for a song they were writing for the soundtrack of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Ray Stevens had already turned down "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," as did, purportedly, Bob Dylan, but Thomas took it. He cut the song live, to the scene in the movie where Paul Newman and Robert Redford are riding bicycles around their ranch in the Old West, for use in the film, then re-recorded it for the single version. On January 3, 1970, the single went to Number One, where it stayed for four weeks; it also won an Academy Award for best song. Along the way, Thomas was asked to perform the song on The Ed Sullivan Show, in front of people dancing around with umbrellas and complete with a bunch of water dumped on his head partway through. Thomas later called it "the most singular dumbest thing that anybody ever had to do."

In the summer of 1970, Thomas was back in the Top Ten with "I Just Can't Help Believin'," written by the legendary Brill Building team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. His string of hits ended with another Mann/Weil song, "Rock and Roll Lullaby," which went to Number 15 in 1972. (Incidentally, on American Top Forty, Casey Kasem introduced this song as being by "Billy Joe Thomas," but I can't find any record of him being officially credited as anything but "B.J.") By that time, Thomas was addicted to speed and began missing live shows; one report had him burning through $13 million. He left Scepter and released two dud albums for Paramount. He also turned in a supporting role in the 1973 Robby Benson starrer Jory.

Thomas seemed to be at the end of his career, but he signed with ABC and recorded an album called Reunion - the reunion was with Chips Moman, who produced the record and co-wrote the first single, "(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song." It was the biggest hit of Thomas' career, going to Number One on not just the pop charts but the country and adult contemporary charts as well. Shortly thereafter, though, Thomas found Jesus, probably to the consternation of his record label. Thomas became a huge star on the Christian charts, recording for the Myrrh label and winning a couple of Dove awards, but his only subsequent pop Top Forty hit was a cover of the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby," which he took to Number 17 in 1977.

(Thomas rewrote one of the verses, though: Instead of singing, "I guess I should've kept my mouth shut when I start to brag about my car," his version goes, "Each morning I awake and find the sunlight softly shining in her hair." What I see as the whole genius of the song, the way you're never sure whether the singer is trying not to worry about his car or his girl - and the singer is probably not sure either - has been lost.)

B.J. Thomas wasn't quite done, though. In 1985, he sang the theme song to the TV sitcom Growing Pains, "As Long as We've Got Each Other," re-recording it as a duet with Jennifer Warnes for season 2, then with Dusty Springfield (!) for season 4. The B.J. and Dusty version was released as a single, which went to Number Seven on the AC charts in 1988, although it didn't place on the pop charts.

Interestingly enough, Thomas today describes himself as "not a religious person." "God is a big sea, and all the rivers go to the sea," he says. "So there's lots of ways to find your faith and your spirituality." When I look back at the career of Billy Joe Thomas, what strikes me is that he put his distinctive and versatile baritone to work with the artistry of so many great songwriters: Hank Williams, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Brian Wilson. Mark James isn't well-remembered today, but in addition to "Hooked on a Feeling," he wrote "Suspicious Minds" for Elvis Presley and "Always on My Mind," perhaps the saddest song in the modern canon. That's a killer resume.

"I'm like the mailman," Thomas said. "I deliver what the guys write and hope it has a lasting effect when I get it there."

We'll see what he does on Letterman; it's gotta be better than this appearance in the same theater forty years ago:

Keith Richards, Jerk

I have not read Keith Richards' memoir, Life, as of yet, but I did read the New York Times Book Review by Liz Phair (apparently, the Times has decided that all the big male rock-star bios should be reviewed by girl singers, following Suzanne Vega on Paul McCartney and Nellie McKay's embarrassing "writty" on John Lennon). About 60 percent of the way through this really long review, Phair writes that "Keith acquires a taste for working unholy hours in the studio that damn near kill his colleagues. He goes round the clock and considers it mutiny if anyone toiling with him leaves the deck."

"I realized, I'm running on fuel and everybody else isn't," she quotes Richards as saying. "They're trying to keep up with me and I'm just burning." I'm sure that this is how Keith remembers things, and at some points in the Rolling Stones' career, it was probably even true.

On the other hand, there are many stories from the Exile on Main St. days of the other band members assembled in the basement of Keith's home in the South of France, wondering if Keith was ever going to come down and get to work. Sometimes he'd show up for a six p.m. session at two in the morning; sometimes he'd be too heroined out to come down the stairs at all. And they were in his freaking house. Imagine if Keith had had to go down the block to a studio; he never would have shown up at all.

But when Keith was ready to work, he'd work all night and all day, if that's what it took. Great. I'm sure the rest of the guys in the band would have traded that for not leaving them all sitting there picking their noses, waiting for their musical leader to decided he was ready to get something done.

I remember a story from more recent times, when the Stones were playing a show at some outdoor venue, and Keith just wasn't "feeling it." It started pouring rain outside, and the fans were drenched and ankle-deep in mud, but Keith just wasn't in the mood yet. Finally, at three in the morning, he took the stage with the rest of the Stones, who finished their set as the sun was coming up. I wonder if any of those fans then headed straight to work.

The fact is, Keith Richards may have a strong internal motor that allows him to work rings round his colleagues - as long as he's in the mood to do so. When he's not in such a mood, he's more than willing to be extremely lazy, and let down the people around him. As I said, I haven't read Keith's book, and I don't know if he addresses his willingness to to be extraordinarily selfish, even to his closest friends and business partners. Having read Phair's review, though, I kind of doubt it.

Look, I love Keith Richards' music, and I could listen to it all day long (and have done exactly that). I love reading about his adventures and his bon mots, and I find his persona somewhat endearing. But I'm sure glad I don't have to put up with him firsthand for any great length of time.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Vagaries of Rock Criticism

In November 1970, writing in the New York Times, Greil Marcus declared, "Bob Dylan's New Morning is his best album in years." In August 1978, writing in Rolling Stone, that same Greil Marcus mentioned New Morning in passing as part of his panoply of "bad Dylan albums."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Don't fear the reaper!
Don't stop thinking about tomorrow!
Don't go back to Rockville!
Don't try to live your life in one day!
Don't sleep in the subway; don't stand in the pouring rain!
Don't mess with Bill!
Don't stand so close to me!
Don't let the sun catch you crying!
Don't say you don't remember!
Don't cross the river if you can't swim the tide!
Don't come around here no more!
Don't dream it's over!
Don't stop til you get enough!
Don't pay the ferryman until he gets you to the other side!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Art From Big Pink

Special thanks to my Aunt Colleen, the biggest Band fan in the entire Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area, for passing along the news that Bob Dylan's original painting of the cover art for the Band's Music From Big Pink is now up for sale. The asking price is a cool $18 million. Dylan, canny businessman that he has always been, has hung onto the painting himself all these years, so if you want to pony up the money, you might even get a chance to meet the Bard of Hibbing himself. You'd at least get his autograph on the back of your check.

In the arena of holding on to your original artwork, Dylan far outpaces Julian Lennon, who let an original drawing called "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" slip through his fingers many years ago. The piece ended up in the hands of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, via a process that I'm dying to have explained to me. Julian would probably like to have it explained to him as well.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

If you're celebrating this All Hallow's Eve inside, I recommend you take a look at Roger Ebert's site, where he presents ten classic horror movies, from Un Chien Andalou and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Orson Welles in The Third Man - which isn't that scary, but is real good nonetheless. When I say Ebert present these movies, I don't mean he's telling you to go watch these movies; I mean you can literally watch them, in their entirety, right there on his Web site. The Internet is cool.

I am reminded tonight of perhaps my most memorable Halloween, when I was still in college but living far enough off campus that we did get some trick-or-treaters. My roommate and I had bought some candy, but between what we handed out and what we ate, we ran out pretty quickly.

But the kids kept coming. One thing we had was a box of those yellow vanilla-flavored Oreo knockoffs, and some plastic baggies. We prepared some bags with two cookies apiece in them, and gave them out to some neighborhood children.

Everyone involved knew this was kabuki of the highest order. The kids knew they never would be allowed to eat those cookies, like they're never allowed to eat any Halloween handouts that are not professionally prepared and hermetically sealed. We knew the kids wouldn't get to eat them, but we had to hand something out or the kids would have been crushed. And maybe egged our door.

The whole exercise was irretrievably sad. And what really bothered me is that if any of those kids had been permitted to eat those yellow sandwich cookies, they would have gotten a Halloween experience they'd still be talking about today - if they were still able to talk after getting a razor blade through the tongue.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Easy Like a Sunday Morning

I always thought it was odd that David Bowie chose to put a non-original song in the middle of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars - which served not only as his statement of artistic purpose but was a storytelling concept album to boot. Not the most propitious place for a cover, you'd think. Plus, the song in question, "It Ain't Easy," is quite possibly - depending upon how you feel about "Rock 'n Roll Suicide" - the worst track on the record.

But what makes it even odder is where Bowie got the song from. It was originally done by a gentleman named Ron Davies on his 1970 album Silent Song Through the Land. Davies' work sounds unexceptional to me, just another acoustic troubadour of the early 1970s, but he was able to get Leon Russell to play on that record, and at the time, Leon Russell was big bananas indeed. Bowie then cut the song in September 1971, as the first one done for Ziggy Stardust (which also seems strange, doesn't it? Maybe the concept didn't emerge till later).

But Bowie wasn't the first one to get to the song. I can't find a release date for the Davies album, but "It Ain't Easy" appeared very quickly on the album of the same name by Three Dog Night in April 1970. The following year, Long John Baldry, who was best known for giving Elton John his start in his band Bluesology, also made Davies' song the title track of his own album. (Has any other non-holiday song served as the title track for two different artists' albums? I can't think of any). One side of Baldry's It Ain't Easy was produced by Elton John, and the other side was produced by Rod Stewart. I wouldn't make this up.

So where did Bowie hear the song? It's tempting to say he got it from Baldry, who was very well-known in England. The album also contained Baldry's only American hit, "Don't Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll." I can't pinpoint a release date for Baldry's record, but one source says it was a hit throughout the summer of '71, leaving plenty of time for Bowie to record the song that September.

So Bowie may have gotten it from Baldry, but Baldry probably got it from Three Dog Night. It's hard to overstate how big 3DN was in 1971; they had had seven Top Ten hits from 1969-71, and two Number Ones. It Ain't Easy had the Number One "Mama Told Me Not to Come," as well as the gorgeous "Out in the Country," which somehow peaked at only Number Fifteen. (R.E.M. would later cut a version as the B-side of "Bad Day.")

Three Dog Night is somewhat out of fashion now, in part because they famously didn't write any of their hits. But this is what they did: they found great unknown songs, often by then-obscure writers like Randy Newman and John Hiatt and Laura Nyro. And by writers who remained obscure, like Ron Davies.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Second Mrs. Dylan

One more note on Dylan: I was recently watching the DVD of the fifth season of Saturday Night Live, and on October 13, 1979, Bob made his one and only appearance on that show, in an episode hosted by Eric Idle (who introduced him as "the very wonderful Bob Dylan"). Bob sang three numbers: "Gotta Serve Somebody," "I Believe in You," and "When You Gonna Wake Up?," all taken from his recently released LP Slow Train Coming.

Although Mark Knopfler was the key guitarist on the record, he didn't appear on SNL. Dylan apparently wanted to assemble to dorkiest-looking band he could find; the only members without full beards were three-quarters of the backup singers. It was these singers that I was interested in, for I knew that one of them was Carolyn Dennis, who would end up marrying Bob and having a daughter with him (not necessarily in that order) in 1986. Dennis had been with Dylan since Street-Legal, in 1978 (one wonders if she spent her free time during those sessions writing "Mrs. Carolyn Dylan" all over her lyric sheets), and would sing on his records all the way through Down in the Groove, from 1988.

I wondered which of the three female singers she was, so I went searching on the Internet for photos of Carolyn Dennis or Carolyn Dennis-Dylan, and couldn't find anything that was clearly labeled as her. Now, I understand that Bob is fiercely protective of his privacy, as is Carolyn, apparently, but still: These people are in show business. She has sung with Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder, in addition to Zimmy. Her mother was one of Ray Charles' Raeletts, which I found very interesting: At least one Raelett also gave birth to the boss's child. You'd think there would be some public documentation of Carolyn's image and identity. But no. I bet when they got married, they didn't even register anywhere.

I'm not being critical; certainly, Bob and Carolyn don't owe me anything. But you'd think a publicity photo would have survived from somewhere. The one thing I have to go on is a Farm Aid-era photo of the Queens of Rhythm, which featured Carolyn and her mom, but isn't officially captioned anywhere I've seen.

During the good-nights on that SNL, Bob came out and stood next to Eric Idle, still looking as uncomfortable as he had the entire evening. One of the singers came over and talked to him briefly as everyone was waving goodbye (Bob even offered a single stiff-armed kind of salute). I'm going to assume that that was Carolyn. Having seen that, and seen this not-well-ID'd picture, I think this is her on Bob's left:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Solomon Burke, 1940 - 2010

Solomon Burke — boy preacher at age seven, gospel recording artist by 17, street corner beggar turned mortician by 20, and the crowned king of rock and soul by 21 — dead at 70. Solomon Burke — the man who sold ice water to his fellow artists on the tour bus, who took over the Apollo theater during a stand there and sold popcorn in the aisles, who interrupted recording sessions at Muscles Shoals to pray with young female supplicants, who told stories of old Southern women leaning out their windows to proffer fried chicken and sometimes also their daughters who wore no underthings and asked for a ride just to the main road — no longer walks the earth, though at well over 300 pounds of heavenly joy, for his last few years on earth he’d more gotten around by cane and wheel chair than walked. No matter. He leaves behind over 20 children and 90 grandchildren. His work will continue.

His voice will not. Burke was Jerry Wexler’s pick for the greatest of the soul singers, and it’s easy to understand why: He was certainly the most versatile. Otis Redding made raw emotion impossibly delicate; James Brown made pleading into celebration; Wilson Pickett packed swagger, sweat and sex into a 1,000 dances a second; Aretha was a force of nature. But they were utterly distinctive, unmistakably themselves. Burke had four different ways (at least) of approaching any one song: the raw pleading preacher; the seductive basso profundo (a Philly native, he’s a clear template for Jerry “The Iceman” Butler in this mode); the sneak-attack falsetto that disarmed women by approaching them in their own voice; and the smooth and mournful country crooner. It’s this last that scored Burke his first major hit, “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms),” which had already bombed for Patsy Cline and others when Burke took it to the top of the r&b and pop charts for Atlantic in 1961. His country songs weren’t soul-country; though they swung more than Nashville, they were straight country, right down the slip-piano style borrowed from Floyd Cramer. Burke went for clear diction on these cuts, no open-throat roar, and like Elvis at the start, he blurred racial distinction until it didn’t exist. So much so that he was once booked at a Klan rally.

Downloading some Solomon Burke from emusic yesterday, another racial distinction vanished. There are detailed recording credits on emusic, and thus did I find out that my favorite Burke cut, "Cry to Me," featured the great jazz pianist Hank Jones (played with everyone from Benny Goodman to Charlie Parker), as well as Bucky Pizzarelli, another jazz player, on guitar. The drummer, Gary Chester, was unknown to me. And the beat on this — a powerfully syncopated habenera with a bell-ringing pizzicato offbeat that hits like shot after shot of cold gin — is ridiculous, a wonder of polyglot hip shaking. Turns out Chester was born on the east coast of Sicily in 1925, and went on to become one of Manhattan's most in-demand studio drummers. That's him on "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand by Me," the Coasters' "Little Egypt" (greatest song about a stripper ever), and most of the great Dionne Warwick cuts. Did he play on the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" and Jim Croce's "Bad Bad Leroy Brown"? He did. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) He also kept time on the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic." And if you're hungering for more B.J. Thomas arcana, know this: The drummer on "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" is Gary Chester. And thus did a white man born in Italy come to bring a Spanish rhythmic influence to early rock and roll, as well as lay down a more mellow backbeat for some of the most ubiquitous '70s pop. Ain't that America?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Phantom Drummer

I'm sure you all know the story of how Levon Helm left the Band in November 1965, and thus he wasn't around in 1967 when Bob Dylan laid down the Basement Tapes with the Band in Woodstock. The Band used a couple of interstitial drummers after Levon left, but when they repaired to Big Pink in Saugerties, New York, it was the core four of Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson who set up housekeeping there.

The accounts I've read have the Basement Tapes period starting around June 1967, and ending that October when Dylan went to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding. Levon Helm rejoined the Band that same month, which brings up a question: Who played drums on the Basement Tapes recording? On the album credits, Robertson and Manuel are both noted as having played some drums. That makes sense, since both those guys were kind of expendable: Garth Hudson could handle any keyboard parts that Manuel wasn't playing, and Dylan himself could spell Robertson on guitar.

And I can hear those shifts in the lineup in some of the Basement Tapes songs. "Apple Suckling Tree" doesn't seem to have any lead guitar, although it does have a bit of flashy drumming, which I assume would be Robbie's doing. Other songs, like "Tears of Rage," don't have any drums at all. (Once you start listening for these things, it's also obvious which songs the Band recorded later then slapped onto the LP, since Levon has a distinctive crackling drum sound, and he's also miles better than any of the other guys in the Band.)

But on "Odds and Ends," I clearly hear a piano (Manuel), organ (Hudson), a stinging lead guitar (Robertson) that seems way beyond Dylan's capability, bass (Danko), and vocals from Dylan, indicating this was recorded before Levon returned. And drums. So who was playing them? One of those instruments might have been added later, but overdubs don't really seem to be in the spirit of the Basement Tapes, do they? If anyone knows, please tell the author in the comments.

That album cover, by the way, was shot in the basement of a YMCA in Los Angeles.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Dylan's Blue Period

In the spring of 1974, after the tour with the Band that would spawn Before the Flood, Bob Dylan showed up at a painter's studio on the 11th floor, high above Carnegie Hall on 57th Street in New York. The painter was named Norman Raeben, and he was the son of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem; Dylan had turned to him for some Hebraic guidance.

But Dylan was also, of course, a painter himself, having done the covers for the Band's Music From Big Pink and his own unjustly maligned (well, OK, not that unjustly) Self-Portrait. So in addition to steeping himself in Raeben's knowledge of Jewish philosophy, Dylan also used their acquaintance as an opportunity to learn how to paint better. So for two months, Dylan spent all day, from 8:30 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon, at Raeben's studio, working on both his painting and his spiritual heritage.

One day Dylan painted a still life of a vase, all in blue - apparently too much blue, because Norman Raeben, who had a penchant for calling Dylan (as well as his other students) an idiot, told him the colors were all wrong. Dylan, as Raeben put it, was all tangled up in blue. I don't know how much improvement Dylan ever saw in his painting skills from all these sessions, but at least he got a song title out of them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

It Worked for Peaches and Herb

While looking up something related to Joe's last post over the weekend, I discovered something that I found fascinating: In the singing duo James and Bobby Purify, who delivered the sumptuous 1966 hit "I'm Your Puppet," produced and co-written (with Spooner Oldham) by Dan Penn, there were actually two different Bobby Purifys. Neither of them was actually named Bobby Purify.

James Purify was a real dude, who formed a group with his cousin Robert Lee Dickey in the mid-1960s. Dickey took the stage name Bobby Purify, and in September 1966, the two of them recorded "I'm Your Puppet" and took it to Number Six on the Billboard Charts. Shortly thereafter, though, Dickey began to have health problems, and in 1971 another singer, Ben Moore, took over as the new Bobby Purify.

For reasons unknown to me, the new James and Bobby Purify recorded a new version of "I'm Your Puppet" in the 1970s, and that take went to Number Twelve in the U.K. in 1976. So here you had the rare case of James and Bobby Purify having a hit with "I'm Your Puppet" in two different countries - except that neither the record nor even the James and Bobby Purify were the same.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Electric Sitar (bonus cuts)

Here's another thing about "Cry Like a Baby" and "Hooked on a Feeling": both were produced by Chips Moman, the Memphis musician who founded American Studios after he split from Stax. He pretty much defined the collision of pop and soul: American is where "Dusty in Memphis" was recorded, and Chips is the man behind "From Elvis in Memphis" and "Suspicious Minds," which has to be the best mash-up of deep-fried beats and rococo melody ever. At American, Moman recorded everyone from Dionne Warwick and Neil Diamond to Wilson Pickett and Joe Tex. Did Herbie Mann record there? Yes, he did. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Moman was at Stax at the very start, in 1957 when it was still in a garage and called Satellite Records (because it was the year of Sputnik and satellites were big), and he was at Muscle Shoals at the start as well. But I've barely ever read a thing about him. In Peter Guarlnick's "Sweet Soul Music," he turns up mostly in stories narrated by his songwriting partner Dan Penn (they wrote "Dark End of the Street" together -- this guy has a lot of claims to fame, which, come to think of it, was the name of the Muscle Shoals recording studio: Fame Studios). Before he moved to Memphis, Moman put in studio time at Gold Star in LA, home to Phil Spector and later the Beach Boys. (You could argue that Moman's masterstroke was blending the layering and sweetness of LA recording with the gut bucket immediacy of Memphis -- or you could listen to Elvis' "Stranger in My Own Home Town," which makes the argument itself. Schmaltz funk! And also: electric sitar.) In the '70s, Moman founded a studio in Atlanta (didn't take) before moving to Nashville. His career maps a huge portion of the sound of American pop.

About the electric sitar: As mentioned, it turns up on the Elvis American Studio recordings. Moman clearly loved it. I suspect its appeal (besides the fact that, like satellites in 1957, it was new) was the way it updated and brightened the mournful slide of pedal steel guitar. Also it sounded freakin' cool. You can hear it on "Eyes of a New York Woman," the B.J. Thomas single that preceded "Hooked on a Feeling." (Thomas has a surprising number of great singles -- don't even get me started on "Rock & Roll Lullabye" -- but I'll leave it to to Tom to tell us more about him, which I hope he will.)

Friday, September 24, 2010


In several late-Sixties hits, such as the Box Tops "Cry Like a Baby" and B.J. Thomas' "Hooked on a Feeling," there's a deep, twangy sound running through the song. At first I thought this was simply a regular electric bass played way down at the end of the neck, but there's a distinctly separate bass line on "Hooked on a Feeling," so I figured that wasn't it. I was planning to ask if anyone knew what that instrument was, but but a few seconds on the Internet reveals that it's really an electric sitar, and leaves us with nothing to talk about. Google is ruining this blog.

You don't really hear much electric sitar anymore, do you? It's on Lenny Kravitz' "It Ain't Over Till It's Over," which I had completely forgotten about: The sitar fills come in about two-thirds of the way through the song. Wikipedia also claims it's on Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love," which I assume is a joke.

I also see that it was featured on MGMT's career-killing album Congratulations. I wouldn't know about that.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Distaff Half

A couple of weeks ago, I was tagged with a Facebook meme asking me to take 15 minutes to list 15 albums that would always stay with me. My friend Louisa McCune saw some value in my list and was gracious enough to point it out to her own friends. One of Louisa's friends then pointed out that it was "sad" that I hadn't listed any female-oriented acts.

I had noticed that myself, and it was kind of sad. I almost wrote down Bettie Serveert's Palomine as I was finishing up, but then I remembered that I had been listening to an awful lot of Leonard Cohen lately and really ought to include something by him, and Bettie Serveert went by the wayside. In my defense, if it had been 15 Singles in 15 Minutes, "Ode to Billie Joe," "You're So Vain" and "Both Sides Now" would have been near the top, although I don't necessarily attach those songs to a specific album.

But that's not much of a defense: Women make a lot of great records. I could have made an entire list of 15 albums that were strongly estrogen-influenced. So I thought, why not? Here's the other half of my Facebook list:

Bettie Serveert, Palomine

Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark

PJ Harvey, Dry

Ella Fitzgerald, Best of the Songbooks

The Breeders, Last Splash

Back to Mono
, a Phil Spector box set featuring the best of the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Darlene Love, among many others

Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock

Silversun Pickups, Swoon

The Carter Family, Wildwood Flower

Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis

Fleetwood Mac, Rumours

Pizzicato Five, Made in USA

The Pretenders, The Pretenders

Dionne Warwick, The Dionne Warwick Collection

Throwing Muses, The Real Ramona

Monday, September 13, 2010

Old Brown Shoe

Speaking of Jeff Goldblum, my tour through the scuzziest early-1970s New York City movies continued last week with Death Wish, which I believe was originally released under the title Scuzzfest '74. Jeff Goldblum made his screen debut here, as one of the thugs who invades Charles Bronson's apartment in the opening sequence. The most alarming thing about his appearance is not that he [SPOILER ALERT] kicks and slashes and beats poor Hope Lange to death, but that he does so while wearing a full-on Jughead cap. This is apparently what the chic mugger was wearing in 1974. I half-expected Goldblum (pictured at right) to whip out some sticks and give us a little "Sugar Sugar."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Potent Potables

I filled my free time over the past few days, for reasons I really couldn't explain, by watching every episode of Saturday Night Live's Celebrity Jeopardy, which you can see here. Here's what I found:

Best impression by a cast member: Jimmy Fallon as a manically unfunny Robin Williams.

Worst impression by a cast member: Darrell Hammond as John Travolta. How can you do John Travolta and make him unrecognizable?

Best impression by a host: David Duchovny as Jeff Goldblum. This is my favorite kind of impression, of someone you wouldn't even think would be worth doing, but Duchovny made you know instantly who he was.

Worst impression by a host: Lucy Liu as Catherinze Zeta-Jones. She couldn't even keep a British accent going over the course of a six-and-a-half-minute sketch.

Best celebrity walk-on: Tom Hanks being a really good sport as himself.

Worst celebrity walk-on: Alex Trebek, who basically just walked out on stage, said a couple of unfunny things to Will Ferrell, and ended the sketch. You can see how, if Trebek volunteered to make an appearance, the producers would feel like they had to jump on it, but it was utterly pointless. What could it possibly mean in the SNL Celebrity Jeopardy universe to have two Alex Trebeks onstage? It just doesn't work. Here's a much better idea: Make Trebek a contestant.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Top Ten Names Bestowed Upon Twins by Classic Rock Fans

10. Jack and Diane
9. Desmond and Molly
8. Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
7. Crazy Janie and Her Mission Man
6. Weird and Gilly
5. Lotte Lenya and Lucy Brown
4. Venus and Mars
3. Number Forty-Seven and Number Three
2. Frankie and Johnny
1. Candy and Ronnie

Friday, August 27, 2010


I've been on Twitter for a while now, and have not found a whole lot of use for it, either as a Twitterer or as a receiver of Tweets, except for the freshet of work that comes from the inestimable Roger Ebert. But recently someone I follow retweeted a line from Conan O'Brien, and it occurred to me exactly what this technology was invented for: comedians. Steven Wright could do his entire act in 140-character bursts.

So I went around and dug up a bunch of comics to add to my Twitter feed. Here's some of the stuff I've found:

Conan O'Brien I found a huge design flaw in my new iPhone. People get angry when I talk on it during a funeral.

Sarah Silverman I will be polite and respectful to the homeless & mentally insane until the day I am murdered.

Craig Ferguson Fell off slide at amusement park in VT. Minor injuries. This must be how Fabio felt after being hit by a goose. Current mood- neosprorriny

Andy Richter Getting divorced sounds awful. Except for that part where you get your own apartment.

Andy Borowitz Trapped Miners Speak: 'At Least We're Not Stuck in a Jennifer Aniston Movie'

I'd love to add more to my feed, but some of the other people I looked for just didn't work out. For instance:

Steve Martin: On Twitter since last August. Six total tweets.
Chris Rock: On Twitter since March 2007. Two total tweets.
Steven Wright: On Twitter since June 2007. Five total tweets.
Bill Maher: On Twitter; only tweets about his upcoming schedule or self-righteous platitudes like Mosque near Ground Zero?Sure, but don't kid yourself that any religion is ever about diversity or tolerance. "Interfaith weddings"also dumb. Never tweets funny.
Emo Phillips: Not on Twitter.
David Cross: Not on Twitter.
Zack Galifianakis: Not on Twitter.

Come on, guys! You're missing out on a chance to amuse me!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Banjo Hitter

Everybody knows how Woody Guthrie had "This Machine Kills Fascists" inscribed on his guitar, right? Well, Pete Seeger had something similar written on his banjo. Pete - who's still with us, by the way, at the age of 91 - wrote: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

'Hanky Panky' Pt. 2: Married to the Mob

By the time "Hanky Panky" unexpectedly became a huge hit in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1965, a year after it had been recorded, the original Shondells had gone their separate ways. On his own, Tommy James decided to go to New York City with his manager and try to land a major-label deal on the basis of that regional hit, which they felt could go national. So they delivered copies to all the major labels and made appointments to drop by their offices. Roulette Records was unable to see them on the day they made their rounds, but when Tommy got back to his hotel room at the end of the day, there was a message: He was signing with Roulette.

As Tommy later learned, Roulette head Morris Levy liked "Hanky Panky," and his label hadn't had a hit in a while, so he called the heads of the other label and told them to lay off, that he wanted this kid. Now, "Hanky Panky" is a lot of fun, but it hardly signals the arrival of a transformative talent, so I don't get the sense that the other labels were too put off by Levy's request. But they also knew that it wasn't a good idea to get in Morris Levy's way when he wanted something.

You have to understand: Morris Levy wasn't connected to the Mob. Morris Levy was the Mob. In his book Me, the Mob and the Music, Tommy James tells of going to Levy's office the day after he had dropped off his record, and being escorted into a meeting with Levy and his team. Halfway through, a couple of Levy's burly associates showed up and asked if they could brief the boss in private. They stepped into the hallway, but not so far away that Tommy couldn't hear what they were discussing: how the two large dudes had administered a physical admonishment to some schnook out in New Jersey who had been bootlegging Roulette records.

Then Levy returned to the office with the two men and introduced them to his new signing, Tommy James. As Tommy says in his book: "Wonderful, I thought while we all shook hands. What am I supposed to say now? How did your beating go?"

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

'Hanky Panky' Pt. 1: Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head

Even though "Hanky Panky" came with the shiny provenance of having been written by certified legendary hitmakers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Tommy James had no idea of the song's lineage when he picked it up for his Shondells. He had heard another band, the Spinners, do the song at a club in Tommy's hometown of Niles, Michigan, and had seen it get a huge crowd response, so he decided his own band should play the song as well. He asked one of the Spinners if they had written it, but the Spinner said he didn't know who wrote it; they too had picked it up from another band.

Eventually, with some help from his pals at a local record store, Tommy was able to look up the single in the huge bound volumes that were the of their day. He traced the song back to the B-side of a single called "That Boy John" by the Raindrops. (One reason it was so obscure was that the promotional push for the record ended after That President John was assassinated late in 1963.) The Raindrops were Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.

But when the Shondells went to record the song, Tommy realized that the only words he knew were "My baby does the hanky panky." He had to make up the rest. At this point, probably the only person who knows the real lyrics to "Hanky Panky" is Ellie Greenwich, and she's dead.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Streetlights, People, Joysticks

I found the following tidbit in the February 1983 issue of Games magazine:

Rock 'n' roll meets video software, and the result is Journey's Escape, an Atari VCS-compatible cartridge featuring the band Journey. Players lead five computer-animated rockers from concert stage to escape [sic] vehicle, dodging groupies, photographers, promoters and police barricades to the accompaniment of Journey hits like "Escape" [ed. note.: "Escape" was never a single, much less a hit] and "Don't Stop Believing." ... Says Robert Rice, Data Age vice president of marketing, "The youth of America know exactly what they want. Today it's video games and rock 'n' roll."

The tenor of the article suggests that Journey is the first-ever band to be accorded its own video game, making them the true progenitors of Beatles Rock Band. One can only imagine the fights that ensued in America's living rooms over who got to be Jonathan Cain.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Rhyme Doesn't Pay

In "Born in the U.S.A.," Bruce Springsteen manages in the space of a single verse to cram together four lines that almost but don't quite rhyme:

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hands
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

Come on, Bruce. Couldn't they have put a rifle in your hand? Or sent you off to foreign lands? Try a little harder next time.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Taking From 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three'

As part of my devotion to seeing every movie set in early-1970s scuzzy New York, I recently caught up with 1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which features four bandits hijacking a subway train just south of the 28th St. station on the 4-5-6 line. It's the rare film in which New York City's now-defunct Transit Police (including Jerry Stiller as a transit detective!) get to be the heroes. For all I know, it's the only film with the transit cops as the heroes.

One of those bandits is Hector Elizondo, who was only 37 at the time, so I figured this might be a rare chance to see him with hair. Hector wears a hat for nearly the entire running time of the movie, but when he finally takes it off near the end, you can see that he went to his barber and asked for the Gavin MacLeod.

Elizondo plays a character referred to only as Mr. Grey; his fellow hijackers are Mr. Brown, Mr. Blue and Mr. Green. Hey, just like Reservoir Dogs! I swear, if I watch enough scuzzy movies from the 1970s, eventually I'm going to come across someone having a conversation about a Royale With Cheese.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tom's Latest Post

I've been trying to collect songs in which the singer refers to himself (or his group) (or herself, or her group) in the third person. This seemed a bit more common in the Sixties, when vocalists were allowed to cut loose in the studio a bit more than in, say, the overproduced Eighties. And there have always been idiosyncratic artists like Jonathan Richman who do this kind of thing all the time.

But I have three solid examples of well-known songs in mind:

* "Matchbox," by the Beatles: "If you don't want Ringo's peaches, honey, don't mess around my tree."

* "I Was Made to Love Her," by Stevie Wonder: "I was made to please her, you know Stevie ain't gonna leave her."

* "Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In," by the Fifth Dimension: In the long outro, Billy Davis Jr. (I presume) ad libs, "You've got to sing along with the Fifth Dimension."

I assume I'm missing a bunch of these. Any other ideas?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The End of the Sixties

I recently watched three movies that really encapsulated the long and noisy turn from the 1960s into the 1970s, although that wasn't why I was watching them; I wanted to see a certain performer who appeared in all three films. The movies were Head (1968), Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) - yes, Jack Nicholson was in all three, but that's not who I was watching for.

Head is basically the death knell for the frivolous side of the Sixties, while Easy Rider takes the counterculture to its logical end, with the New Mexico commune that can't even feed itself. Easy Rider's cross-country jaunt to the insane fun of Mardi Gras is echoed by Five Easy Pieces' cross-country trip - where there's a suffocating family waiting on the other end. At least nobody gets hacked to death in a sleeping bag.

They were all three produced by Raybert Productions and executive-produced by Bert Schneider - and apparently produced by Bob Rafelson (who is listed as an uncredited producer of Easy Rider by IMDB), who of course directed Head and Five Easy Pieces. So of course a lot of the same people show up, like Dennis Hopper (who has a wordless cameo in Head) and Karen Black, who is in both Easys.

One nice thing to see was the presence of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, who wrote the precious theme to Head, "The Porpoise Song," and also wrote "I Wasn't Born to Follow," which the Byrds sing in Easy Rider. (I used to think this song was called "The Ballad of Easy Rider," but that's actually the dirge-y thing heard over the end credits.) I tend to think of Goffin and King dominating early-1960s pop, then disappearing until Carole emerged in her caftan for Tapestry, but there they are, guiding 1960s rebellion to a soft landing.

Anyway, the performer I was watching for who was in all three movies was Toni Basil. She danced a lovely duet with Davy Jones in Head, was the prostitute who stripped in the New Orleans cemetery with Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, and got taken for a ride with her girlfriend by Jack Nicholson and was in the famous "Hold it between your knees!" scene in Five Easy Pieces. Miss Basil is now trying to write a book on the history of street dancing, but her memoirs would be lots more interesting.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Back in the 1960s, trumpeter Herb Alpert had a string of Top 40 hits - a whopping thirteen of them, all instrumentals - culminating in the Number One smash "This Guy's in Love With You," from the spring of 1968, which featured Herb's own less-than-dulcet tones. He then left the Top Forty for a while, although he continued to have adult contemporary hits, such as his theme from Last Tango in Paris, which was a Number 22 AC hit in 1973 but topped out at Number 77 on the Hot 100. By 1975, even Herb's AC hits had petered out.

But when Alpert did return to the Top Forty, it was with a bang - "Rise" went all the way to Number One in the summer of 1979. Eleven years elapsed between Top Forty hits for Herb Alpert, yet they both went to Number One, which as far as I can tell is the longest time for an artist to be absent from the Top Forty despite having consecutive Number Ones. Alpert also became the only artist to hit Number One with both an instrumental and a vocal performance.

And now, on with the countdown.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Happy birthday to Rich Starkey, born 70 (!) years ago today in Liverpool, England. Despite the tired jokes about Ringo being the luckiest man in showbiz, his post-Beatles career stands up pretty well, with seven Top Ten hits including two Number Ones, "Photograph" and "You're Sixteen." (Oddly enough, he never had a Number One in the U.K., peaking at Number Two with "Back Off Boogaloo.")

Ringo's 1974 hit "Oh My My" is also the only record I know of that was canny enough to use Merry Clayton on backup vocals after her powerhouse performance on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." Martha Reeves also sings on that one, but then again, everyone always liked working with Ringo. In 1975, his greatest-hits package Blast From Your Past was the last record released on the Apple label, which is surely deserving of note.

Also, just because it never gets old, here are David Letterman's Top Ten Revelations in Albert Goldman's Upcoming Biography of Ringo:

10. Only Beatle to portray himself in Beatlemania
9. Used to give John and Paul token songs to sing so they wouldn't feel left out
8. Had a secretary named Lincoln, while Lincoln had a secretary named Ringo
7. For a while, actually believed Paul was dead
6. Served in Indiana National Guard during Vietnam War
5. Suggested "Hey, Hey, We're the Monkees" as Beatles theme song
4. On their honeymoon, he and Barbara Bach held a "bed-in" to promote Seagram's wine coolers
3. Made a fortune selling cheesy Ginsu Knife sets on TV (I'm sorry-that's revelations about Ronco)
2. Advised Paul that "Hey Dude" just didn't sound right
1. Vocal on "Octopus's Garden" played backwards sounds like "Thank God these other guys are so talented"

Thursday, July 1, 2010

O Canada

Happy Canada Day! Like most Americans, I have spent this day thinking about who the greatest Canadian rock star is. It's not a simple question, because there's more to it than just "Who was the greatest rock star who was born in Canada?" Many of the biggest stars from the Great White North, from Joni Mitchell and the Band to Bryan Adams and Shania Twain, have long since emigrated to Les Etats-Unis and surrendered whatever remnants of Canadian identity they once had. We could take the easy way out and call Neil Young the greatest Canadian rock star, but there isn't very much that's Canadian about him anymore, is there?

On the other hand, you have acts like the Tragically Hip, who are quintessentially Canadian, which is probably why no one cares about them down here in the Lower 48. Or Barenaked Ladies, who are the perfect Canadian band: funny, polite, inoffensive, eager to please, bland. They manage to be endearing and boring at the same time, which isn't an easy feat to pull off.

I guess my question is: Which Canadian act has had the most success here in America without surrendering its fundamental Canadianness? I would posit that it's Rush, whom everybody knows but no one would ever mistake for Americans. Plus, Geddy Lee sang on Bob and Doug McKenzie's indelible and excruciatingly Canadian hit "Take Off."

Anyone else?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Summertime Blues

Far be it from me to contradict the wisdom of the great Rob Sheffield, but I can't understand why anyone would want Katy Perry's "California Gurls" to turn into the song that rules the summer. That song gets played on the radio out here at least once an hour, but the song is so uncatchy, and Katy Perry's voice is so unmemorable, that I never even recognize it till they get to the chorus. Snoop Dogg always sounds good, though.

Maybe it's just that I don't get the whole Katy Perry thing. Usually I can understand why someone has their share of hits, even if I don't like the music; I know why Justin Bieber got big, or Slipknot. But Katy Perry seems to be a mediocre-looking woman with a mediocre voice, in service of mediocre material. She even has a mediocre name. I can't for the life of me understand why the pop-music gods summoned her for stardom.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

One Hot Manute

Manute Bol, dead at the age of 47. He was always a fascinating character, not just for his ridiculous height but for the inquistiveness of his mind. Charles Barkley once said that Manute kept asking him about milk: "You know what he was talking about the other day? Milk. He was saying that he grew up on milk straight from the cow. Squeezed it himself. Milk. He says, 'Charlie, what's this lo-fat milk, this two percent milk, and all this other milk? Cows don't give lo-fat milk, two percent milk. We shouldn't drink it."

Eventually, after his NBA career had ended, we learned that Manute was also one of the great humanitarians of his time. See this story, which offers up more tribute to Bol than I possibly could.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Head Games

You know, you watch the Monkees' movie, Head, and you wonder who exactly was putting on whom. It opens with a mayor trying to dedicate a bridge (there aren't even any opening titles), before Micky Dolenz runs on and jumps off into the water below, whence he is rescued by mermaids to the strains of the gorgeous "Porpoise Song," which would later resurface on the soundtrack to the terrible Cameron Crowe movie Vanilla Sky. And everything thereafter is pretty much about the Monkees' attempt to kill off their image, their fan base, their entire career; they spend much of the movie trying to escape from an enormous metal box. Hmm, I wonder what that could be a metaphor for.

It was directed by Bob Rafelson, who put together the TV series that ended just before the movie began filming, and would later direct, with much success, Five Easy Pieces, as well as, with less success, Man Trouble. The four Monkees themselves also contributed ideas for sketches. So in a sense, with the whole Monkees creative team onboard, it's 90 minutes worth of self-loathing, exemplified by the sequence in which Davy Jones gets his beautiful face bruised and beaten in by Sonny Liston (!).

Rafelson brought in a struggling actor by the name of Jack Nicholson to help with the screenplay. Nicholson loved the movie - he makes a cameo appearance, and he claims to have seen it "like, 158 million times." But I also notice that his talents as a screenwriter have since gone untapped, with the sole exception of the script for Drive, He Said, which Nicholson also directed in 1971.

It's not even so much that it's bad, although it's plotless, and dreary at times - do we really need to see videotape of that South Vietnamese police chief shooting a guy in the head on the street? The surrealism and occasional shots of humor keep your attention, and Toni Basil dances a lovely duet in Davy's big Broadway-style production number. But you can't believe anyone thought this was a good idea for the Monkees, even the people who were starting to hate being the Monkees. If this trippy, cynical movie had starred the Jimi Hendrix Experience or the Strawberry Alarm Clock, it would have made a lot more sense. But the Monkees were madcap, carefree, too busy singing to put anybody down. Their presence just makes the movie a little more sad.

At the end, they all plunge from a helicopter - photographed falling in slow motion as if they were the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night - into that selfsame water Micky Dolenz jumped into, with the same gorgeous "Porpoise Song" playing behind them, and although they get to frolic in psychedelic colors for a while, this time there's no rescue. They end the movie trapped inside a water-filled box, screaming for their lives.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Young and Old Alike

I always assumed that Marvin Gaye held some kind of record for the disparate age of his spouses - his first wife Anna Gordy (who was Berry's older sister) was seventeen years his senior, and his second wife, Janis Hunter, was sixteen years his junior. But the playwright Garson Kanin made a run at the record. He married the great actress Ruth Gordon, who was 16 years older than he, in 1942, then married the great actress Marian Seldes, who was 16 years younger than he, in 1990, after Miss Gordon's death.

Now, I am aware that there are probably several rich dudes with trophy wives who have married people with an age difference of greater than 33 years. That's not what I'm talking about; I'm talking about people who married two people with a decade or more of distance on either side of their own age.

I learned this tidbit about Garson Kanin in the midst of a wonderful story in this morning's New York Times Magazine about Marian Seldes, who was honored on the Tony Awards tonight. Miss Seldes comes across as a down-to-earth, likable, even plucky character, despite the fact that she is one of the most astonishing performers I've ever seen. I had the privilege of seeing her in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women in 1992 at New York's Beacon Theatre. There were times when Miss Seldes would be sitting quietly, doing nothing but listening to another character speak, and you still couldn't take your eyes off her. No one listens like Marian Seldes. I'm sure Garson Kanin appreciated it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Old Buck

Of the many remarkable aspects of the career of the doo-wop legend Buck Ram, perhaps the most remarkable was that his name was really Buck Ram. Well, not exactly, but he was born Samuel Ram to Jewish immigrant parents in Chicago. He was an overachiever who graduated from high school at the age of 15 and eventually finished law school as well, but his heart was in the music business. Although young Buck couldn't sing and could barely play an instrument, he found his niche as a songwriter and manager. He wrote a poem called "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which later became a massive hit for Bing Crosby.

Or maybe not. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was recorded in time for the 1943 holiday season, and credited to Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, but once it hit big, Buck Ram claimed he had actually written the lyrics. He said that sometime earlier, he had shown the lyrics (supposedly written when he was a teenager) to some guys in a bar, then was shocked when those lyrics turned out to be the basis of Der Bingle's single. Ram had indeed copyrighted the lyrics to a song called "I'll Be Home for Christmas (Tho' Just in Memory)" back in 1942, but according to Wikipedia, it bore little resemblance to the standard we know today. Honestly, I have no idea what the truth is, but Buck's story sounds a little fishy to me. Whatever happened there, Ram ended up with a songwriting credit on later pressings.

Note what year we're in here: Buck Ram was already 36 years old in 1943. He claims to have arranged charts for the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, but his primary business seems to have been managing C&W and R&B vocal groups. Then, in 1951, Ram decided to merge his songwriting and managerial talents by organizing a group for the express purpose of performing his songs. The Platters existed before Ram took their reins, but he ordered several personnel changes and hired new lead singer Tony Williams. They cut seven singles for the L.A. label Federal Records, but they all stiffed. Federal considered one of Ram's songs, "Only You," not good enough to release.

But because of Ram's managerial skills, the Platters were a successful, profitable group on the touring circuit, and the Penguins, coming off their smash "Earth Angel," asked Ram to manage them as well. Since Ram now had an actual hitmaking group on his hands, he got both them and the Platters signed to Mercury, and had the Platters re-record "Only You" (with something called "Bark, Battle and Ball" on the B side). The new version, which came out in the summer of 1955, was a huge hit, going to Number One on the R&B charts and Number Six on the Hot 100. Their follow-up single, "The Great Pretender," also written by Buck Ram (in the bathroom at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, no less), went all the way to Number One in February of 1956. Buck Ram was 48 years old.

It astonishes me that someone that old could have been so deeply involved in creating rock & roll. I've done this coming from the other side, but consider: Buck Ram was older than Benny Goodman. He was older than Perry Como. He was older than Louis Prima. The man was born in ought-seven, for pity's sake. While Frank Sinatra, who was eight years his junior, was busy denouncing rock & roll and music for cretins, Buck Ram was busy inventing it.

Ram would go on to write "Twilight Time," "The Magic Touch," and several other hits. In the first 50 years of BMI, he was one of the top five songwriters in terms of airplay, alongside Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Kris Kristofferson, and Jimmy Webb. (Kris Kristofferson? Really? I would never had guessed he had that many hits.) He also got involved in many lawsuits over the ownership of the Platters name, resulting in a group calling itself the Buck Ram Platters, and frankly, I'm not interested in that.

Buck Ram died on the first day of 1991, at the age of 83. Of all the people involved in the creation of rock & roll, he was almost certainly the oldest.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Carbon, Monoxide, Etc.

Paul Simon, in "Papa Hobo," from Paul Simon:

It's carbon and monoxide
The ole Detroit perfume
And it hangs on the highways
In the morning
And it lays you down by noon

Cf. Hall and Oates, "She's Gone":

I spend eternity in the city
Let the carbon and monoxide choke my thoughts away

Now I am not any sort of chemist, but it's my understanding that when you have carbon monoxide, it's not like you have a bunch of carbon and a bunch of monoxide and you mix them together. You can't really have carbon and monoxide any more than you can have green and beans.

So the question is: Were people unaware of this in the early 1970s?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dennis Hopper, 1936-2010

Dennis Hopper, dead at the age of 74. My second-favorite thing about Dennis Hopper was the Chicago Reader's description of his character in Hoosiers as an "Oscar-hungry drunk." My favorite thing about him was that I got to interview him a few years back, in order to talk about the following photograph of Ike and Tina Turner:

Dennis had taken that photo, at a time when his angry young man act had worn thin in Hollywood and he was turning to photography as sort of a second career. It was taken in the front hallway of Phil Spector's house, when Ike and Tina (or Tina, anyway) were working on "River Deep - Mountain High." He was very gracious and seemed genuinely flattered that I was thoroughly familiar with his work.

Hopper married Mama Michelle Phillips in 1970, but the marriage didn't last. "I will say this about Dennis Hopper," Michelle supposedly said later. "We were married for eight days and truly, they were the happiest days of my life." One wonders what happened on the ninth day.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fade to Black

Over at his Web site Rule Forty-Two, my friend Gavin Edwards has been leading us through an insanely detailed look at MTV's year-end video countdown from 1988. I highly recommend it, especially because you can be reminded of such insipidness as Paul Carrack's "Don't Shed a Tear" without having to listen to the song.

One video Gavin won't be covering is Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You," which came out in 1984. The strange thing about this video is that Dan Hartman looked like this:

You would never have known that, though, if you were watching MTV back in 1984, because the video featured a much younger man in sunglasses gamboling around a stage in front of a trio of background singers. Oh, and he was black.

The song was featured in a potboiler called Streets of Fire, an action film set in the music industry. Hartman had written the song, which was performed in the movie by a fictional group called the Sorels, with vocals dubbed in by a singer named Winston Ford. But for reasons that are unclear to me - who really knows why Hollywood does anything - the version that ended up on the movie's soundtrack album was the one sung by Dan Hartman himself.

So the video was carved out of the scene in Streets of Fire where the Sorels performed it. The amazing thing is that the head Sorel Stoney Jackson (whose real name was Stonewall Jackson, swear to God) was lip-syncing to Winston Ford in the movie, but he also works seamlessly with the Dan Hartman version. No one watching the video on MTV had any idea this thing was lip-synced, much less that it was lip-synced to an entirely different version of the vocal. (This was partly because Streets of Fire was seen by approximately six people.) My guess is that Hartman cut a guide vocal for Ford, so Ford always performed the song exactly the way Hartman did.

One wonders if Dan Hartman was disappointed that most people believed his biggest hit was performed by an entirely different man. Then again, he was 33 years old at the time, a bit long in the tooth for a pop star, and his only prior chart success had been a disco hit called "Instant Replay" that sneaked into the Top Thirty in very early 1979. (Hartman had also spent five years in the Edgar Winter Group, although he doesn't appear to be albino.) He was probably grateful for hits any way he could get them.

We could ask Dan Hartman how he felt about the video, but he died of a brain tumor in 1994, at the way-too-young age of 43. We've all seen the video for "I Can Dream About You" a hundred billion times, so here it is with a twist: This is culled from actual Streets of Fire footage, presenting the song as it was in the film, with vocals by Winston Ford:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pretty Woman or Ghost?

Okay. So. Crystal Bowersox. (Should be Bowersoxx – just saying.) Was 12 in 1995 when Alanis Morrissette’s “Ironic” was released. (Actually, was 12 and 1/2 – just saying.) Is now singing it on “Idol.” Followed by Alanis herself singing “You Oughta Know.” Yes, Alanis left out the part about the “Full House” guy and the movie theater. Here’s my question: When they had that moment, she was 16 and he was 31 (oy – just saying) and it was 1990 or 1991: What movie was playing?